Labs Lure Scientists To Test, Keep Ideas In St. Louis
October 13, 2010
Labs lure scientists to test, keep ideas in St. Louis
By Georgina Gustin
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
When drug giant Pfizer Inc. shuttered its research facilities in Chesterfield last year, hundreds of scientists started looking for jobs in other parts of the country.
But a handful had an idea they hoped could evolve into a business that would allow them — along with their Ph.D.'s and potentially lucrative talents — to stay here.
"We all had opportunities outside St. Louis," said Joe Monahan, one member of the group. "But we all felt now was the time to take advantage of our ideas."
So the group teamed up as Confluence Life Sciences and started looking for two of the primary elements they needed to get going: money and space.
They found the money, some of it in their own pockets. Finding the space took a little more effort. But the BioGenerator Accelerator Labs, opening today, presented a solution.
The labs, in midtown St. Louis, will offer equipment and space to researchers, at low or no rent, so they can perform very early-stage research to determine whether their ideas might one day turn into products.
"This will provide wet lab space for researchers or entrepreneurs who are still exploring whether their idea can be translated into something commercial viable," said John McDonnell, chairman of BioGenerator, a nonprofit group that nurtures life science companies in the area and spearheaded the effort to build the labs. "This is before a company is formed — it's pre-company."
This early-stage research is often prohibitively expensive, so many ideas never come to fruition, simply because of the costs of determining whether they are worthwhile. But by providing scientists with well-equipped, affordable lab space, BioGenerator hopes more scientists will embark on this research here — and then stay here.
"We know they're not all going to be successful," said Donn Rubin, executive director of the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, a group of research institutions, companies and nonprofit groups that is coordinating life science-related business efforts here. "But we need to get more ideas in the pipeline."
Most importantly, Rubin said, the labs will help anchor the researchers to the region should their concepts prove commercially feasible. From the Accelerator Labs, the researchers can move on to some of the already established incubators in the region, and from there to commercialization.
"We want to be a global leader not just in the research," Rubin said. "But a global leader in the commercialization of that research."
The labs, however, are just the starting point.
"Every regional life science hub has a continuum of infrastructure, programmatic and physical, that is necessary to move from an idea to a product, and the Accelerator labs are an important piece of that," said Dennis Lower, president and CEO of Cortex, the life sciences organization whose building, Cortex One, will house the labs. "It's providing an opportunity for researchers to prove their technology."
"This effort is a piece of the continuum," Lower added. "But it's only a piece. There are quite a number of other elements that have to be in place."
For Confluence Life Sciences, the first tenants of the 5,400-square-foot lab complex, the lab space, along with funding from BioGenerator, proved critical in their decision to stay put, at least for now.
"Without these incubators and equipment that's associated with them, I don't believe there would have been any opportunity for us to have done this in St. Louis," Monahan said. "We would've seriously considered the northeast corridor or the Bay area."
It would not have been the first time the region lost out on potentially important research. Advocates for transforming St. Louis into a life sciences hub recall at least two examples of where companies left the area for lack of venture capital. One moved to North Carolina and was later sold for $400 million; another left for the other coast and sold for $350 million.
"Most of the money and all the jobs went to went to California," said William Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University, and an officer of the Coalition, in an interview Tuesday.
BioGenerator formed a decade ago to help the region capitalize on the research being done at universities and in the private sector, in part by drumming up money. That has started to flow in, from private and public sources, Rubin said, but what the area needs is more venture capital and more 'serial entrepreneurs" who will make money on one venture, then turn around and invest in another. The research also needs more support from policy makers, Rubin said.
"We're fighting for a million here and a million there," he said.
But for now, Rubin and his colleagues are celebrating another positive step.
"There is a creative, primordial ooze bubbling up in St. Louis and a lot of activity that's just taking shape," Lower said. "We're just now beginning to get our arms around this, and organize it into a more effective, proactive energy. We're honing our message, our story."